|Lazio rejoice during an unnecessarily complicated draw versus Vaslui|
The UEFA coefficient rankings may be imperfect, but they are far more reflective of a league's comprehensive health than the farcical FIFA rankings are of a nation's quality on the world stage. And as far as the UEFA rankings are concerned, Serie A has not only fallen behind the Bundesliga, but is in genuine danger of being usurped by France's Ligue 1 and even Portugal's Primeira Liga (see table below the article).
The reason is simple: while an Italian team has won the Champions League twice in the last four years (Milan in 2007 and Inter in 2010), Italian clubs in general have treated the Europa League with derisive contempt. This is even after they know that victories in the Europa League gain valuable points for the coefficients (see a detailed explanation of how coefficients work on this outstanding site). On the one hand, it is difficult to blame them. The financial incentives to compete in what many see as a perfunctory sideshow to the Champions League are not significant enough to motivate a team like Udinese to field their preferred starting line-up (after all, the winner of the competition earns at best close to six million euros). For example, Antonio Di Natale is being rested for the trip to Glasgow when Udinese play Celtic on Thursday.
However, even when Italian teams have fielded a semblance of a starting line-up, or at least a fairly competitive one, the results have been disappointing. Lazio's 2-2 draw with Romanian outfit Vaslui on the first matchday was risible. The starting line-up contained Federico Marchetti, Cristian Ledesma, Tommaso Rocchi, and new signing Djibril Cisse. Sure, key players like Hernanes did not start, but Lazio should have, with all due respect to Vaslui, recorded an easy win with the players who did.
The mantra of "there are no easy games," which is ubiquitous in football journalism but remains suspicious, does not apply here. While there is no way to peer into the hearts and minds of the players, what remains clear is that Lazio did not play with the same urgency and spontaneity they played with when they gained a far more creditable 2-2 draw against Milan only days earlier.
Somewhat similarly, Udinese's slight 2-1 win over Rennes at the Stadio Tardini was an exercise in salvaging three points that should never have been in jeopardy to begin with. How can a team that came torturingly close to eliminating Arsenal in the qualifying rounds of the Champions League be on the backfoot against Rennes just a few weeks later? Admittedly, Rennes may resent my cavalier attitude, for they did finish sixth in Ligue 1, and were even in the top four for some of the 2010-11 season.
|Fiorentina vs Rangers in the 2007-08 UEFA Cup|
The last time Italy did have representation at even the semi-final stage of Europe's second-tier competition was when Fiorentina lost to Rangers on penalties during the 2007-08 season of what was then the UEFA Cup. Since then, there have been some high-profile embarrassments. Just this season, Palermo were eliminated at the qualifying stage by Thun of Switzerland. Last season, Napoli played lethargically and drew with the likes of Utrecht, and a last-gasp goal against Steaua Bucharest barely qualified them for the second round, at which hurdle they stumbled to the team they expertly vanquished just yesterday in the Champions League--Villarreal. And lest we forget, just last season, Juventus could not beat Poland's Lech Poznan to get out of the group stage.
If money is not the motivation, then can not sporting merit be enough in and of itself? If Italian teams see the Europa League as an opportunity to try out youth and players who get less action during the league season, then why can not a certain quality of performances be virtually guaranteed? Is the failure of Italian teams in the Europa League also symptomatic of a failure of a system that is not producing enough quality?
Indeed, the last question is sobering, and reminds us of how far Italian football has sunk. Parma and Inter won Europe's second-tier competition five times between them in the 1990s. However, in the last twelve years, not one Italian team has triumphed.
Yesterday, Serie A had a memorable day in the Champions League. Inter went to Moscow and managed a thrilling 3-2 victory against CSKA Moscow, while Napoli cruised past Villarreal 2-0 at the San Paolo. It is also up to the Europa League contestants of Lazio and Udinese to keep the momentum going. If Serie A clubs do not heed these alarming signs of decline, then Italy will inevitably be fighting to keep hold of the three coveted Champions League spots it does have left. Trying to win back the third spot from Germany seems improbable; losing the fourth position to France or even Portugal does not. And even for Italian football, which seems to withstand all sorts of debacles, that ignominy may be one too many.
|UEFA Coefficient Rankings taken from Bert Kassies's website|